I had the opportunity to end 2014 with a visit to Death Valley. Every couple of years I need a “desert fix” to see and feel the stark landscape of the arid west. The last time we went to this area in 2007, my camera rolled out of the vehicle at our first stop and never worked again. I was eager to get back with a working camera.
Our first stop was a BLM campground in Walker Pass. This no fee campground was absolutely beautiful and we were the only campers that cold night. Located in a unique transition area where the Mojave Desert mingles with the Great Basin in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Joshua Trees mingled with Pinyon Pine, Juniper and Jeffrey Pine.
We spent our first night in Death Valley at the Texas Springs Campground near Furnace Creek. Campsites are in close proximity to each other and the place was full. Ironically, a typical night at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve is much quieter than most public campgrounds. With a half moon in the sky, I decided to escape the crowd and go for a night hike to take photographs. Walking in the desert with only the illumination of the moon is something everybody should experience. Once the eyes adjust, every detail of the rocky desert trail becomes clear.
The chalky white hills arising from the wash near the campground were beautiful in the moonlight.
Our goal was to get into the back country and see the “Racetrack Playa,” a dry lake where isolated rocks have left strange tracks on the lake surface. This site is 28 miles down a dirt road at an elevation of 3608 feet. We drove up to Ubehebe Crater and began negotiating the rocky road.
Eventually we arrived at a crossroads marked with an impressive collection of tea kettles. Our tea kettle was an important piece of equipment to us, so we did not add to the display.
The road wound though a stand of small Joshua Trees. I was surprised to see this plant in Death Valley. I did a quick search for Desert Night Lizards, but they were probably deep under cover to survive the winter.
We arrived at the playa in the late afternoon. It was clear that the higher elevation would result in cooler temperatures, but we were not expecting a night that bottomed out below 20 degrees.
In the morning we headed back to the playa bed, where I saw some of the only birds viewed in the park on this trip. A flock of horned larks was foraging around the perimeter of the playa. Nice to see some life in this barren landscape. The surrounding desert vegetation revealed a small group of Sage Sparrows, rummaging in the litter of the creosote. The playa itself was a a perfectly flat and barren plain.
The sailing rocks of the Racetrack Playa have presented a mystery for many years. How did these rocks leave such tracks?
People studied the movement of these rock through the entirety of the twentieth century. Yet, nobody ever witnessed the rocks actually moving. It was thought that perhaps the rocks were moved by strong winds when there was water in the lake. The clay soils could provide a slick enough surface to facilitate the sliding of the rocks. An alternate idea was that when the water in the lake froze, high winds moved whole sheets of ice, including the rocks themselves.
Finally, with the utilization of Global Positioning Systems and time lapse photography, a movement of rocks was documented on December 20th, 2013. In the coming days, some rocks moved as much as 224 meters. When thin ice sheets just a few millimeters thick start to melt during periods of light wind, the thin floating ice panels shove the rocks across the lake surface. These rocks can move at up to five meters per minute. The mystery was solved.
On the north end of the playa, a large outcropping of Quartz Monzonite appears in the lake bed. This rock formation is known as “The Grandstand.”
On our way back to the Furnace Creek area we encountered a very friendly coyote. His mate was not quite so bold.
We took a look at a place where ground water comes to the surface, forming a creek that flows through pickleweed thickets. So strange to see this marsh plant in the middle of the desert.
All in all, a fantastic trip to a unique part of the State and a great glimpse of our desert wilderness.